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Abdullah Ibrahim: The Song is My Story

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The Song Is My Story, a gorgeous solo-piano album from the veteran South African musician Abdullah Ibrahim, is 17 tracks long. By jazz standards, it should be a two- or three-disc set. Instead, by the time the album has finished, only about 40 minutes have elapsed, and that gives you an idea of where Ibrahim is at conceptually. The tracks are short-more than half are under two minutes-so the pianist is merely taking a look at these pieces. He comes to them, mulls a few things over and moves on. He is not, for instance, taking long solos and investigating every nook and cranny of every tune. Why would you want to know a song inside and out? That would take all the mystery out of it. Plus, don’t you want to find something new next time? It’s an exciting approach, and one that holds your attention. Story keeps you on your toes.

The music is just as thrilling as the way Ibrahim goes about making it. As one would expect, the mood changes rather quickly. “Threshold” is pretty but unsettled. Part of “Open Door Within” sounds like Thelonious Monk but softer. “African Dawn” is harsh. “For Coltrane” is touching, and it sometimes sounds as if Ibrahim is about to move into John Coltrane’s “Naima.” The album is bookended by Ibrahim on solo saxophone, getting either nostalgic (“Celestial Bird Dance”) or playful (“Children Dance”). Generally speaking, the music on Story is peaceful, gentle, graceful. Beautiful. Despite the nature of the compositions-about half of the tracks were created in the moment-the album is never cruel. This music soothes and heals.

This is a two-disc set including an hour-long DVD. The film catches up with Ibrahim both in the studio, where he plays songs and tells the stories behind them, and onstage. These experiences are also solo piano. The DVD is fun but anticlimactic-by the time you get to it, the CD has already given you so much. Still, it’s nice to meet the gray-haired man who just filled your heart with so many notes. He seems like someone you’d want to know.

Originally Published